'The Pursuit of Love': Lily James Exudes Infectious Energy, But The Feminist Agenda Is Stuck In the Past [Review]

Based on the 1945 novel of the same name by Nancy Mitford, Emily Mortimer’s “The Pursuit of Love” is a breezy, swirling look at the romantic lives of two upper-crust British cousins in between WWI and WWII. The first of three novels featuring the two characters, this miniseries adaptation keeps the format of the novels as Fanny Logan (Emily Beecham) narrates the story, focusing mostly on the romantic adventures of her beloved cousin Linda Radlett (Lily James).

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As we first make our way into this world, we see a woman sunbathing on a rooftop garden. Her nails are bright red, as are her lips. Eventually, we see she is pregnant. This is the free-spirited Linda. This sumptuous setting ends abruptly; as she saunters down her pirch to lay in bed, suddenly a bomb crashes through her ceiling. It’s 1941, and we’re in the middle of The Blitz. The dust settles, all rubble and mayhem as an also pregnant Fanny scour the scene for her cousin. We then join the two mid-journey in a car as Fanny proclaims, “5 months of perfect happiness” was worth all the chaos they now find themselves in. 

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Mortimer then cuts the story back to Christmas 1927, where we meet teenage Fanny and Linda, still young and eager to begin. As the story is told through Fanny’s voice-over, we get her point of view on everything, including descriptions of Linda, who is described as a “wild and nervous character, full of passion and longing.” We learn that Linda is one of several children whose father Matthew, a hilariously satirical Dominic West, is raising in near seclusion from the rest of the world. He does not believe in educating girls, hates foreigners, and spends a great deal of time hunting with his beloved hounds. We also learn that Fanny has been raised by relatives, as her mother is known as “the Bolter” (Emily Mortier). She left her family to pursue a life of rich husband after rich husband on the continent. 

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The girls find comfort in each other and the cozy linen closet where they share all their secret desires and plans. We follow them as they begin to rebel against Matthew’s strict ways. From running away to meet boys in Cambridge to debutante balls, the two stick together until marriage rears its ugly head. As the two grow apart, we get a picture of Linda’s life mostly in contrast to Fanny’s, which creates the thrust of the show’s drama. 

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As with the first episode’s opening, Mortimer gives most of her characters incredibly dynamic and stylish introductions. She uses slow motion as Linda meets her first husband, Tony Kroesig (Freddie Fox), at a party, his slick blond hair and impeccably tailored suit taking up the entire frame. This sequence feels more in line with 1980s new romantic music videos than it does typical period fare. Linda’s outlandish neighbor Lord Merlin (Andrew Scott) is given an equally stunning intro set to “Dandy In The Underworld” by glam rock pioneers T. Rex. Merlin is a patron saint of Bright Young Things, the nickname given by the tabloid press to a group of Bohemian young aristocrats and socialites in 1920s England, of which author Nancy Mitford was a member. Merlin proves a big influence on Linda and a stark contrast to her conservative father and Tory’s husband. From Sherlock to season two of Fleabag, Scott tends to steal the spotlight whenever he appears, and it’s no different here. It seems as though Scott, West, and Mortimer, in her brief appearances herself, are the only cast members completely on the same wavelength as the script and tone that Mortimer attempts to achieve. 

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As the episodes progress, we see Fanny settled in a stable romance with the scholarly Alfred Wincham (Shazad Latif), while Linda struggles with motherhood and finds herself in romances with communist Christian Talbot (James Frecheville) and playboy Fabrice De Sauveterre (Assaad Bouab). Mitford and Mortimer use these romances to critique England’s political upheaval between the wars, skewering everyone from idealist extremists to non-committal moderates.

As Fanny, Emily Beecham is tasked with imbuing the traditional repressed Englishwoman with a deep well of internal conflict, and watching her character transform over the three episodes is the series’ true highlight. As Linda, Lily James does what she’s been doing since her breakout role as Lady Rose Aldridge in “Downton Abbey” – exudes tons of energy and wears decadent costumes. She probably wears lavish costumes better than anyone since Kay Francis, but she never quite seems to bring any depth to her roles. The fervor is there for sure, but if we’re supposed to believe by the end of the series that her final love affair is the real thing, we’d need an actress more capable of showing character growth. In the end, she always feels like the impetuous teen whose ideas of love are not based in any kind of truth. 

Like Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” Mortimer uses an anachronistic soundtrack to modernize the setting and showcase the story’s contemporary themes. For the most part, this works with the T. Rex needle drop, arguably the best use of music throughout. Other tracks that work wonderfully include Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” when they defy their elders and steal a car to go see a boy, Sleater-Kinney‘s “Modern Girl” underscoring the bittersweetness of Linda’s first wedding, and Bryan Ferry’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” as Linda loses a few years to decadent hedonism in the 1930s. 

It is about time we start seeing more adaptations of 20th literature written by women about women. Unfortunately, the story’s feminist agenda is still stuck in an earlier century. Its message that women deserve the same societal freedom as men is an important one; however, it’s still very entrenched in classicist society due to the source material’s age. Although we see how even upper-crust girls were stuck in gilt cages, the story never quite addresses this classicism and its characters’ privilege in a way that grocks with the contemporary feminist movement. So while the show is beautifully made, its message feels a few decades too late.  [C+]

“The Pursuit of Love” comes to Amazon Prime Video on July 30.